BBG Watch Commentary

U.S. tax-funded Voice of America (VOA) under holdover Obama administration director Amanda Bennett appears to continue its selective censorship of Chinese billionaire businessman Guo Wengui and threatens with firing VOA Mandarin Service journalists who had resisted her decision to cut short his live VOA interview on April 19, 2017.

Voice of America did not have any reporters at the news conference in New York City Tuesday, November 20, 2018, at which Guo Wengui, who also goes by the name Miles Kwok, was joined by Steve Bannon, former chief strategist for President Donald Trump, to announce establishment of a $100 million “rule of law fund” for investigating allegations of corruption and human rights abuses by officials of the communist regime in China.

According to a VOA Facebook page, the Voice of America has a News Bureau in New York at 26 Federal Plaza, New York, New York in addition to its main newsroom in Washington.

As announced at the news conference, Bannon is to serve as an unpaid chairman of the $100 million foundation established by Guo Wengui who currently lives in the United States and is seeking political asylum.

The Chinese government has accused Guo of various crimes and demanded his deportation. Guo denies such accusations as false and politically motivated. He blames them on his expose of corruption within the Chinese communist government and making public China’s attempts to place agents in the United States and to intimidate and corrupt Western media and institutions.

While there were no VOA reporters at the news conference in New York, VOA Mandarin Service chief Dr. Sasha Gong, who has been suspended from her job on the orders of VOA and United States Agency for Global Media (USAGM) senior management, was there as an independent reporter and columnist.

Gong is a former political prisoner in China who after emigrating to the United States received a PhD from Harvard University. She was active in Republican Party politics prior to her VOA employment.

While on forced leave from her VOA job, she has written articles for the Hong Kong English-language newspaper The South China Morning Post.

She was called on by Steve Bannon to ask the first question at the New York news conference. She has appeared with him earlier in a television program as a commentator.

On November 24, Gong published an article in The Daily Caller on how the Chinese government managed to get her 2017 Voice of America live interview with Guo Wengui shortened by VOA’s senior management apparently by using threats and spreading “fake news” about Interpol’s “Red Notice” alert calling for Guo’s arrest. The paper stated that she is on “administrative leave from her job as Chief of Mandarin Service for Voice of America for several months” and writes “solely in her own personal capacity and not on behalf of Voice of America.”

Responding to Sasha Gong’s questions at the news conference in New York, Bannon agreed that most Western media have been surprisingly silent about mysterious deaths of Chinese dissidents considering their otherwise keen interest in allegations of similar abuses by governments of Russia and Saudi Arabia.

Guo and Bannon focused on the July 2018 death in France of Wang Jian, co-founder of the Chinese conglomerate HNA Group. The French authorities have ruled his death to be an accident, but Guo and Bannon asserted that Wang may have been assassinated. They announced that the new foundation will investigate such deaths, disappearances and arrests to uncover the truth and to bring peace to the families of the victims.

In response to Gong’s question [YouTube video at 1:20:50], Bannon stressed that this is a private initiative and has nothing to do with the U.S. government or the Trump administration.

While VOA’s parent agency says that “The mission of United States Agency for Global Media (USAGM) is to inform, engage, and connect people around the world in support of freedom and democracy,” a search of the main news website conducted on Saturday, November 24, at 4:54 and 4:55 PM ET did not show any VOA English-language coverage of the Guo Wengui human rights investigative journalism fund for China.

VOA China Branch had a short report more than a day later after being widely criticized on Chinese social media for failing to cover the event. The dateline on the VOA Chinese Branch report was: “2018年11月22日 01:03.” The news conference was on November 20. The VOA Chinese report had only 500 words.

Radio Free Asia, which is separately and better-managed although also within USAGM, had a much more detailed report.

VOA also did not report on two other important news developments in the past few weeks, which RFA and other Chinese and English language media have covered. The Chinese government fined Guo 60 billion yuan (approximately 9 billion US dollars) and the Hong Kong government froze 4.5 billion US dollars of Guo’s assets a few days before his New York press conference.

Sasha Gong was not representing VOA at the news conference in New York last Tuesday since the senior management appointed during the Obama administration does not allow her to work as a VOA reporter and wants to get her fired. English “Guo Wengui” search results screenshot taken on November 24, 2018 at 4:54 PM ET does not show any recent VOA coverage and neither does English “Steve Bannon” search results screenshot on November 24, 2018 at 4:55 PM ET.

While the Voice of America English Newsroom ignored the anti-censorship initiative by Guo Wengui, other U.S. and international media did not. The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Free Beacon, Le Figaro posted their reports or used an Agence France Presse (AFP) report.

It is incredible that The Wall Street Journal would report this news in English, but not the Voice of America which is supposed to serve foreign audiences in countries practicing censorship. Such a failure by VOA would have been unthinkable during the Cold War. It would have been also inconceivable for a VOA foreign language service broadcasting to a country without free media during the Cold War to devote only 500 words to such a news story.

Among many media in Asia reporting in English on the Guo-Bannon news conference was The South China Morning Post. Slightly over a year ago on November 15, 2017, the Hong Kong paper reported that “Voice of America, a US government-funded broadcaster, has sacked three suspended staff members over their involvement in a live streaming interview with self-exiled Chinese tycoon Guo Wengui half a year ago, according to the International Federation of Journalists.” The paper also reported that “The IFJ, a global federation of journalistic trade unions, has called on the international news source to explain the terminations.”

As of today, these journalists remain on forced administrative leave with pay and are fighting their management-proposed terminations. They were originally known as “VOA Mandarin Five” after VOA’s senior management suspended five of them with pay for allegedly not following instructions to cut short the live interview and reportedly accused some of them of violating good journalistic practices. VOA Mandarin Service journalists strongly deny these charges and insist they were merely trying to resist pressure from the Chinese government in an effort to prevent censorship of the Guo Wengui live interview.

Other media in Asia reporting on the Guo fund news conference included The Japan Times – AFP, The Straits Times – AFP, and Asia Times.

Politico mentioned the Guo Wengui-Steve Bannon news conference in one paragraph news brief. The Washington Post, where both VOA Director Amanda Bennett and her deputy Sandy Sugawara, have past journalistic links, also mentioned briefly the Guo news conference.

USAGM, headed by CEO John F. Lansing, is the federal agency which oversees VOA and other U.S. tax-funded media serving foreign audiences. Critics say that during his tenure and under Bennett’s directorship, VOA has reached unprecedented levels of extreme Left-wing partisanship in violation of the VOA Charter which requires balance and fairness. Bennett and Lansing reject such criticism, but there is evidence that for many months, some VOA English Newsroom reporters often used f-words to describe Trump in private and in some of their public social media posts.

A one-sided partisan video translated and posted by one of VOA’s foreign language services included descriptions of Trump as “pig” and “dog”. John Lansing later said in an interview with NPR that agency employees have the highest respect for the office of the U.S. president. A VOA news report called Stephen Bannon “a populist, hard-right insurgent,” while in other VOA reports Democratic Party activists were identified only by their titles.

Both Lansing and Bennett were appointed to their positions during the Obama administration when the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), the former name of USAGM, was overseen by bipartisan BBG Board with a Democratic majority. It was chaired at that time by a Democrat, Hollywood movie studio executive Jeff Shell. As chairman of Universal Filmed Entertainment, he was reported to oversee a major business deal in China in 2016.

In a public comment on April 25, 2018, Bennett categorically denied that there was pressure from China regarding the 2017 Guo Wengui interview or that the Chinese government or the U.S. government had any effect on her decisions.

VOA Director Amanda Bennett: “I want to point out that there was no Chinese government pressure, there was no US government pressure. All the decisions made inside the Voices of America were made in the service of high journalistic integrity. And unfortunately I am sorry we can’t tell you anything because of privacy and labor issues, and we cannot tell you the reasons why things are happening, but I’d like to assure you that….first of all, talking about censorship, you just mentioned something that’s very important–an hour and 18 minutes. The Guo Wengui interview appeared on Voice of America for an hour and 18 minutes. Every decision that was made regarding that–every management decision that was made regarding that interview was made in the service of journalistic integrity.”

Amanda Bennett’s husband is reported to have major business interests in China.

U.S. laws do not forbid USAGM officials or their family members to have substantial private or corporate business interests in countries such as China or Russia, but they raise questions about potential conflicts of interest and, in the opinion of critics, should be avoided for high-level Voice of America officials and other USAGM employees.

Prior to the shortening of VOA’s live interview with Guo Wengui in April last year, Chinese government officials made vague threats to VOA correspondent in Beijing that they would take retaliatory actions if VOA would proceed with the interview. Apparently only after these Chinese regime threats were made, senior VOA officials became concerned and reportedly first tried to get the live TV and social media interview, already approved and announced to the audience, canceled and have the entire interview pre-recorded. When met with resistance from VOA Mandarin Service journalists, senior managers reportedly tried to have the live interview shortened to 15 minutes but apparently would not put a specific order to that effect in writing. “I could hear the panic in their voices when they called me and my colleagues,” Gong was quoted by sources as telling USAGM officials. She reportedly added, “they dared not to give a direct order” as “they knew how bad it looked to the public if a well-promoted and widely-expected program was canceled or cut short in the last minute.”

According to inside agency sources, the Chinese Embassy in Washington repeatedly placed phone calls to VOA officials and was called back by Bennett’s deputy Sandy Sugawara.

According to inside agency sources, Gong told USAGM officials that she does not regret her attempt to air the entire live interview with Guo Wengui who would not agree to pre-record the interview fearing that VOA officials might try to have it censored.

VOA Mandarin Service Chief Dr. Sasha Gong (L) and VOA Director Amanda Bennett (R)

Suspended VOA Mandarin Service Chief Dr. Sasha Gong: “I fiercely disagreed with the suggestion from the VOA top management to cancel the Guo Wengui interview. It made zero sense to me that VOA would cave when facing vicious pressure from the totalitarian Chinese government. To me, we, the VOA journalists, should be the front line soldiers in guarding press freedom.”

“If you find any fault, let it be mine, and mine alone,” Gong was quoted as telling USAGM officials, urging them not to punish any of her VOA China Branch colleagues.